The 2016 Australian national championships celebrates 10 years in Ballarat this week with the Victorian town playing host for the criterium, time trial and road race titles. The racing programme has changed over the years and 2016 is no different with Cycling Australia moving the women's race from its usual Saturday position to Sunday morning before the men's road race to allow for live broadcast and expected greater roadside spectator support.
With several defending champions, former champions and aspirants for the title as Australian national champion all lining up across the nine events, there is once again a strong field of competitors from the U23 ranks, through the elite women to the elite men.
Racing starts with the evening criterium up and down the main street of Ballarat, Stuart St, with the U23 men the first to go. Thursday is time trial day with the action moving to Bunninyong for an out-and-back course that made its debut last year. Friday allows a day off for the riders with Saturday now an U23 men affair only before the Sunday conclusion of both the men's and women's races.
Criteriums – Wednesday January 6
An U23 title doesn't guarantee a successful future in the sport but considering the riders who have gone on to bigger and better things, it can be seen more of a confirmation of talent and reaffirmation that a rider is heading in the right direction. Dan Fitter (State of Mind/Maap) will start the Wednesday criteirum as one the overall favourites for the green and gold jersey considering his recent run of results and rise over the 12-months months on both the road and track. Former champions Brad Linfield (2013) and Chris Hamilton (2015) will pose as dangerous riders, as will last year's podium finisher Jesse Kerrison, who will also be riding for State of Mind/Maap.
The women's field contains several former champions in Lauren Kitchen, Sarah Roy and favourite for a third title, Kimberley Wells, although there are several other names to add into the mix. Chloe Hosking had a quite Bay Cycling Classic last week but as one of the top sprinters in the country will always start the criteirum as a favourite. Along with Roy, Orica-AIS can add in-form Lizzie Williams and Chloe McConville to its starters and the team will be looking to start the championships on a high and get an early win.
The men's race is always an intriguing affair with several top class riders pinning on a number for the 40km event. Two-time champion Steele von Hoff is aiming for the road race title in 2016 but is sure to feature at the pointy end of the race. Caleb Ewan is the name on everyone's lips after his three stage wins at the Bay Cycling Classic and will be the man to beat as he seeks his first national elite title.
Brenton Jones was the main man challenging Ewan at the criterium series and is hungry to take home his first national elite title. Drapac have had some close calls in recent years but Jones could be the man to bring home the title. Neil van der Ploeg and Pat Shaw will look to light up the race for Avanti IsoWhey while former champion Cam Meyer makes his Dimension Data debut and could spring a surprise.
Time trials –January 7
Defending champion Miles Scotson will start the men's U23 time trial as the rider to beat. Seventh place at the World Championships last September in Richmond suggested the 21-year-old's season of balancing track and road commitments had little impact upon his strength and stamina. Oscar Stevenson came close to the title 12-months ago and should feature in the medals again. Freddy Ovett is an outside bet for the podium with the climber looking to develop his time trialling skills in 2016.
Shara Gillow will start the time trial as the favourite for the green and gold jersey and her fifth career title. Victory will see the Rabo-Liv rider join Kathy Watt as the most successful rider against the clock at the national titles. Gillow's main rival looks again to be Bridie O'Donnell who will be the penultimate rider to leave the start house.
O'Donnell will attempt to break the UCI Hour Record on January 22 with the national title a final hit out and chance to iron out any pacing issues and seek revenge for her 2015 silver medal behind Gillow.
The men's race is poised for a shoot out between BMC's duo of Richie Porte and Rohan Dennis, who finished one-two last year. The time trial will be Porte's first in the red and black following his move from Team Sky and he has the advantage of leaving the start house last, with Dennis one minute ahead. There is little so split either rider at the moment with a matter of seconds the likely difference between the two
Jack Bobridge, Damien Howson and Jordan Kerby should challenge for a medal with former champions Luke Durbridge and Michael Hepburn both absent from the start lists. Look to Tim Roe (Drapac) and Sean Lake (Avanti) to occupy the hot seat early on.
Road races – January 9-10
The U23 men will all but have Buninyong to themselves on Saturday, with the inaugural gran fondo championships warming up the crowd, as the women's race moves to Sunday. Scotson soloed to an impressive victory last year with then teammate Alex Edmondson nabbing second for a SASI one-two. Scotson will have brother Callum for support this year and expect both riders to be heavily marked.
Several of the domestic NRS teams will be fielding strong squads with an added incentive of a potential Tour Down Under start with the UniSA team. SEG Racing duo Ovett and Nick Schultz pose as a double threat on the hilly circuit while watch out for the likes of Alistair Donohoe, Dylan Sunderland and Cyrus Monk.
Having missed out entirely last year, Orica-AIS wants nothing less than the green and gold on Sunday and is sending a high quality seven-rider team to ensure victory. Former champions Gracie Elvin and Amanda Spratt headline, while dual silver medallist Rachel Neylan is a consistent performer come nationals and a joker in the deck for the team.
Tiff Cromwell is a perennial favourite for the national title but is yet to turn that favourite status into gold. With the Olympics her main objective for season 2016, a national title to start the season would be the perfect way to kick off her Rio campaign. Defending champion Peta Mullens and Lauren Kitchen aren't exactly dark horses, but both are sure to leave their mark on the race with a little less attention afforded to them than their bigger team rivals.
Orica are planning for two wins on Sunday with the men's GreenEdge team also fielding a strong team of climbers, rouleurs and domestiques, plus add in fast man Caleb Ewan to that mix and you having a winning cocktail. Simon Gerrans will start as the favourite for the title despite his injury plagued 2015 campaign and his last win coming in September of 2014. Gerro has mastered the Buninyong circuit in recent years and has the characteristics needed to take the win from a series of circumstances.
Drapac shape up as the prime rivals to Orica-GreenEdge in numerical terms and will take the fight to them all the way to the line. BMC with Dennis and Porte will be key adversaries while Dimension Data have two jokers in Cam Meyer and Nathan Haas. New Cannondale signing Simon Clarke will be free to do as he pleases and will be a rider well worth watching for a last lap attack.
Look to the likes of Avanti and State of Matter/MAAP to disrupt the big name riders and infiltrate breakaways all day long. Last year it was a breakaway staying away to the line and with plenty of riders concerned with who's doing what, a well timed penultimate lap attack could just reap the ultimate award.
Cyclingnews will have full coverage of the Australian national championships with race reports, results and photos from all nine events along with latest news so keep clicking back throughout the week.